Sometimes there are just moments when a teacher steps back and realizes,
“they GET it!”. While observing my students
today I happened to see this miracle take place.
I teach theatre to a very awesome group of students here at CMS. This is
the one place that you really do find a melting pot of all members from our
student body. We’ve got the self-proclaimed loner, the jock, the
I’m-involved-with-every-sport kid, the misfits, the overly intelligent one, the
shy quiet observer, the boisterous voice, the detail orientated, the
I-don’t-even–know-what-day-it-is, and of course the theatre nerd. We’ve got them
At the beginning of this year, I opened class with my ground rules and my
expectations. But there is one expectation that must be maintained regardless….
No matter who comes through our door to join our class, we are to treat them
like our brother or our sister. In this room, we are a FAMILY. Albeit perhaps a
sometimes eclectic crazy one, but a family nonetheless. So when the door opened
this fall and Tessa* entered our room I noticed the quizzical looks that played
over my student’s faces. I observed them, because to be honest (and I hate to
admit this) the look crossed my face too. For you see, Tessa, our school’s
smallest student is confined within a wheelchair due to a medical condition
where her arms and legs are curled up upon herself. So when her
paraprofessional worker pushed her through the door, I know our first thought as
a class was, “How is this going to work?”
So I repeated the rule of theatre for everyone’s and my own benefit. No
matter who joins us, we are FAMILY. We began interacting with Tessa through
improv games, and Tessa loves to people watch. She began to smile and started to
laugh in her own little unique way when the kids began to act out different
scenarios. So right then and there, the next round of games I decided that Tessa
would get to play. I asked the kids to group up and reminded them that Tessa was
in our class and she needed a partner. I was so proud when one of my girls said, “I’ll be her
partner!” Immediately this was seconded by one of my boys.
The scenario drawn was that of a mother and daughter strolling through a
park when something jumps out from behind some shrubs. I went up to my boy and
suggested that I didn’t know how Tessa may respond if the something
was scary. He said, “I can do something fun. Don’t worry.” And I didn’t… for
when Tessa and her “mother” strolled through the park, the cutest little
energetic puppy you ever saw jumped out from behind the bushes and began to
prance around Tessa’s chair. While the “mother” began with startled
exclamations, Tessa responded with laughter. From that moment on, Tessa had
started magic in our classroom, and we all fell in love with her.
Throughout the following days, our adventures in theatre progressed as
did our understanding of our newest family member. We learned that Tessa could
communicate with us in her own special way. When she wiggles her left arm she
means the word YES, she also has a voice box attached to her chair and if she
wiggles enough she can hit that and we hear a mechanical response. When she wiggles
her right arm, it means NO.
In another scene, one of my boys asked Tessa’s group if they needed
chairs and Tessa hit her voice box bar with an empathic YES. She knew she needed
a chair. Of course she needs a chair! The scene acted out that day was
“attending a rock concert” and while her peers jumped up and down shouting in
appreciation for the imaginary band- there was Tessa, hitting her yes-bar voice
control as many times as she could wiggle her arm to do so.
Due to her medical needs, Tessa doesn’t get to be in class often. But
when she is there, she is ready to smile. And the class is ready to see her.
Which of course brings me to the miracle of today.
We are busy working on different concepts of theatre. One of our major
standards is Performance, and my class will have a small performance piece in
the middle of our winter production of “A Christmas Carol”. The
8th grade theatre class will compose the entire Fezziwig scene, which of
course includes dancing.
My Mr. Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig are two wonderful kids, but it has
taken a bit of time to get them used to the idea of working together as they
have been at odds for some time. In the play, Mr. Fezziwig introduces his wife
and his beautiful daughters. And right then and there, we knew a role that Tessa
would play. She would be one of his daughters.
I wish people could see what has been taking place in my classroom on
Wednesdays as my young men and my young ladies partner off and learn this
Victorian inspired dance choreography. Even my more boyish boys or hesitant
girls are willingly shrugging off their shoes to dance with each other. Today
though was different. Today we had a wheelchair in our midst.
I had asked our school resource room if we may be able to borrow Tessa’s
extra chair, the one where she sort of stands in when strapped into place. They
willingly complied and so waiting in the room for when my students showed up was
this little chair.
Mr. Fezziwig was first to arrive in my classroom. And he noticed me
kneeling beside the chair, brainstorming out loud because there are no handles
for someone to hold on to and push the chair. He came over and began to look at
the chair with me. (You need to understand that my Mr. Fezziwig is a young man
of about 14 and is your typical boy of this age). He started to look at the
chair and then said, “You know what? What if we took a pair of bicycle
handlebars- the kinds with the long handles- and attached them to the back of
the chair? Then Mrs. Fezziwig could hold one side if she needs to, and then I
could hold one if I need to.” All of a sudden, I heard the voice not only of a
student of mine but a student who was putting himself in the position of Tessa’s
guardian- just like a dad thinking about his daughter’s well-being.
He and I brainstormed about this thinking that it may be a workable idea.
As the rest of the students began to arrive in class they came to stand where we
were and soon I noticed that I had 17 middle school teenagers gathered in a
circle around a very small wheelchair, all of them looking at this apparatus
that Tessa would be in for the play. I then told them of Mr. Fezziwig’s idea, to
put handles on the chair- and then one student said, “I might have handlebars we
can use.” Then another, “If you don’t, I might have some.” One at a time about
4 students began to offer something of their own so that Tessa would have a
chair that we could use in the play.
Another student asked, “Doesn’t she wear a dress? What does it look like
with the chair? Will it work?” So we took Tessa’s costume off the clothing rack
and draped it over the chair. One girl observed, “It looks a bit long. Can we
cut it so the wheels don’t tangle in it?” To which I readily agreed and then
looked around at my class of 17 students, all of whom were not focused on
themselves but this empty chair in our midst.
Then we broke from the circle and took our places to rehearse our dance
steps. And at the top couple position? Mr. Fezziwig, Mrs. Fezziwig, and an empty
wheelchair. We practiced the routine several times today and the entire time
there were the Fezziwig’s learning how to maneuver a wheelchair for their
“daughter” around the dance floor.
As we ended our routine, I looked at the kids and their happy faces. I
couldn’t help but praise them for their effort today and their willingness to
work hard with their partners. I honestly don’t know which of my students said
it, but one said to another- “Isn’t it cool?! Tessa’s gonna dance!”
As class dismissed, I neared Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig and asked, “Can one of
you please take your “daughter’s” wheelchair back to her classroom?” And these
two kids, who have been at odds with each other each said, “I’ll take it to
her!” Then they looked at each other, “We’ll BOTH take it to her!”
There are just some things, miracles I think, that happen in theatre.
Things I get to observe and witness to, things that cannot be measured in any
way on some test. But things that will be with us all for the rest of our lives.
In her own little way, Tessa has wrapped us all around her very tiny fingers.
And she has made our class a better place to be, and my students- she has helped
them find unity and the ability to focus on the benefit of another rather than
Yes, Tessa, you are going to dance! But more than that, you are going to
carry our hearts with you out on that stage floor.
If you are going to be around Cortez on Dec. 13 or 14 at 7pm, you may
want to come to the middle school. I have a feeling that we will all depart a
little more charitable and inspired by the end of the evening.
*name has been changed for student privacy